With a cost savings equating to 23% less than it cost to acquire the land and build North Creek High School on a cost per square foot basis, the District opened its newest choice school, Innovation Lab, in fall 2020. The school opened with about 110 freshman and 40 sophomore students. Up to 150 students will be accepted to future freshman cohorts.
The three-story, more than 66,000 square feet school supports the significant growth the District anticipates at the high school level and the need to create additional capacity, though this need was met in an unconventional way -- repurposing an existing office building to create a new school.
Director of Capital Projects Dri Ralph described the building design of Innovation Lab High School as one with limitless flexibility, including “sliding partitions, technology that moves with students as they move throughout the building, and discrete spaces.”
The purchase and construction of this building was funded from two sources: unrestricted capital dollars and impact fees. Unrestricted capital dollars were available from a property sale that appreciated over time and impact fees, which are collected through the District’s five jurisdictions from developers who are developing properties that add students to the District. Impact fees can be spent across the entire district, not just in the jurisdiction they are collected from, to best support the needs of all students.
“This school reflects an innovative use of impact fees which I believe jurisdictions will embrace. It is a project that clearly adds capacity for the whole district as students districtwide can choose to attend,” said Ralph.
Thinking Differently About Construction
The team hit the ground running with the purchase closing in April 2019 and the certificate of occupancy received in October 2020. A typical high school rebuild can take anywhere from 4 to 12 years depending on the availability of land, funding, designing, planning and the construction of the building.
Had this been a new school from the ground up, the team would have given the architects a document with the District’s education specifications. These specifications would detail what is desired, and then with a blank sheet of paper the architects would begin turning those words into a building, with the only constraints being possible wetlands or the topography of the site.
With the building already intact, Ralph explained that the team was faced with the challenge of working with the constraints already existing, such as columns, restroom locations and staircases. The team sat with the problem statement of: This is what this building looks like, how can we turn it into a great school -- what can we do to use the existing infrastructure to our benefit, and then how can we minimize the things that maybe aren't as ideal?
“The team had to develop creative solutions to get around some of those limitations, whether it was the building itself or the building codes that we were working through,” said Ralph.
Innovation Lab Principal, Peter Schurke, played a major role in the planning.
“It was a really collaborative project with all of us trying to figure out how to maximize what we could get out of the building, while always being as conscious as possible of the dollars that were being spent,” said Schurke. “We had a minimalist approach to bringing the building together, so that we could keep it as flexible as possible for whatever the future of Innovation Lab holds.”
Bringing the Details to Life
Major changes included the addition of more than 100 micropiles beneath the flooring to increase the stability, bringing the building up to code, and the addition of a staircase.
As part of the process, Schurke actively engaged in the District’s Goal 4 Think Tank, which helped determine the programming for the school. He also visited schools across the country to see different models in order to gather ideas and then synthesize them to understand what Northshore could replicate before determining what needed to be different to best support the needs of the Northshore community. The Goal 4 Think Tank would review Schurke’s school visit reports and identify physical aspects of the building design that were important, which Schurke would then bring to the project team to incorporate.
One of the main focuses was creating flexibility for students and staff.
“A challenge that we had was how to create a space with movable walls, movable partitions, that allows us to open up or partition off spaces, as we need them flexible and yet still create the feel of learning spaces -- we don't call them classrooms -- that can be either discrete from each other, or open up to be combined with each other. ”
In time, the team took this idea and made it a reality, creating up to 20 learning spaces when all of the partitions are closed. As partitions are opened, the number reduces respectively.
Schurke and team were aware that the building doesn’t have some of the traditional components of a school building, such as a gym, locker rooms and sound deadening music rooms. He explained this is another opportunity for innovative thinking, “This just means that we have to think non traditionally about how to offer those programs. Our school still offers PE, we're just offering it in a different way than it may look at a comprehensive high school. We are also looking toward the future to potentially add ways for our students to access music opportunities.”
The school’s meal service area was another area that the team had to think about differently.
“At Innovation Lab you can see everything that is happening related to Food & Nutrition Services, which is different from other high schools,” said Director of Food & Nutrition Services, Juliana Fisher. “The meal prep area is very open and connected to the rest of the space.”
Innovation Lab will cook and prepare some items onsite, while others may come from another kitchen. There are hand washing sinks, food prep sinks and some pieces of equipment that will allow Food & Nutrition staff to keep food stored appropriately.
Additionally, students will also have access to the District’s first meal vending machines. Students can enter in their student ID to purchase a breakfast, lunch or a la carte item. The items in the vending machine will be prepared by Food & Nutrition Services and be replenished daily.
“This entire concept is something new for us so we are looking forward to getting student feedback on what they want, what works, especially with the new vending machines,” said Fisher. “We are open to trying different things and making changes based on what schedules look like, what the students want, and what we can offer in those spaces. It’s an exploration.”
While there were building requirements to meet code, there were also must-haves that were part of the school’s design, many of which were guided by Schurke.
Schurke requested a time capsule be put in the foundation, as he saw the opportunity with the floor already opened for the micropiles. He wanted to ensure students in the first class commemorate their first year by placing artifacts in the capsule.
Bottle filling stations were Schurke’s other design must-have.
“I was really insistent on bottle filling stations, so that we can cut down on individual water bottles and single-use water bottles,” he said. “I want our school community to promote civic mindedness through this opportunity to reduce, reuse and recycle -- part of that is eliminating waste from occurring in the first place. I wanted every floor to have a station, with a counter on it to know how many bottles were saved, so that we can eventually start setting up floor versus floor competitions of who's saving the most bottles from the environment and from the landfill.”
Partnerships for Success
Coming in on time and on-budget, the project is considered a success. Ralph credits this success to the collaboration and skill between the District and its partnerships with McKinstry, Integrus Architecture and Code Unlimited.
“McKinstry and Integrus were really important partners in getting the project done and Code Unlimited was an important partner in getting the project permitted,” said Ralph.
Capital Projects Planner, Sung Joung echoed Ralph.
“Kudos to the contractor and everybody else who was involved in this process because normally it would take from design to finish, about three to four years for this project,” he said. “This was a fast track project and I am very pleased with the final product. From the principal to the contractor, we had great synergy.”
While the majority of the construction for the school took place during the pandemic, the silver lining was that the site lent itself to safely continuing construction because it is three stories so people were able to spread out, said McKinstry Senior Construction Manager, Noelle Powers.
“Given that we had a big structural component and large interior, that allowed us to spread people out -- even more than six feet of social distancing -- we were able to maintain schedule, and keep things moving. If it had all been a typical box and everything got funneled through the same door, to the same job and in the same area, we would have run into a lot more problems,” said Powers.
Ready for Students
The building was ready to welcome students, who returned on Monday, April 19, in alignment with the District’s reopening plan.
At this time, the school’s emergency prep (e-prep) facility is the only remaining item for construction. This facility will house the school’s emergency supplies. To note, the school is located near the District’s Support Services building and Secondary Academy for Success, so if access to these supplies is needed before the e-prep facility is built, they are located right up the street. As the school’s enrollment grows, additional furniture and equipment will also be purchased.
“This school broadens the scope of our educational offerings in Northshore,” said Ralph. “There's a real environmental statement here, when it comes to adaptive reuse -- to take a piece of property and use it for something else that's a real community asset -- I think it's a big win for the District, as well as the community at large.”
Innovation Lab High School’s 2021 application process remains open. Space is limited, so students are encouraged to apply as soon as possible. The application is only for current eighth grade students who wish to attend Innovation Lab High School in fall 2021. Current 9th and 10th grade students interested in joining Innovation Lab can apply to do so through the District’s existing transfer process. Learn more about the school by visiting their website.